Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, 2011)

I know what you’re thinking. You wait ages for a Focuspullr review and then two come along at once. No? Ah well. Apologies friends for overloading the blogosphere, but despite seeing this during the IFI’s Horrorthon Festival over the Halloween weekend, I felt compelled to write it up, as it is a highly original and striking film.

Snowtown concerns itself with the true-life crimes of Australian serial killer, John Bunting, brilliantly played by Daniel Henshall.  Between 1992 and 1999 Bunting and a group of not-so-willing accomplices murdered eleven people in various locations in Southern Australia. The murders became known in the national media as The Snowtown Murders, as some of the bodies were discovered in barrels hidden in a disused bank vault in Snowtown, a suburb north of Adelaide. Bunting’s victims were random people he thought to be homosexual, or whom he considered to be paedophiles, and therefore “dangerous”, and were drawn from the mostly welfare-dependent communities in which Bunting established himself.

In the film, John befriends Elizabeth (Louise Harvey), a depressed, separated mother of three teenage boys. The boys had previously been left with a paedophile neighbour who abused them while Elizabeth was out visiting her ex-partner. When Bunting learns of this, he embarks on a campaign of intimidation to scare off the neighbour. John then becomes a kind of father-figure to the boys; slowly establishing himself in their home, and gradually becoming Elizabeth’s partner. John strikes up a close friendship with Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), the middle son, in particular, and involves the boys in his hate campaign against their paedophile neighbour, who eventually flees the area.  As we come to understand the neglectful environment the boys are growing up in, we learn that Jamie is also being abused, physically as well as sexually, by his older brother Troy (Anthony Groves); causing him to withdraw into near silence, and inuring him to anything resembling “normal” feelings.

This is Justin Kurzel’s feature debut – apparently he grew up in and around the area where some of Bunting’s murders took place –  and instead of giving us a straight-ahead chronological or biographical treatment, he allows the film to gradually unfold in a series of images and transitions which simply show rather than tell. I knew nothing about the real-life story before seeing the film, and had to read up on Bunting afterwards to fill in most of the blanks, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film. Kurzel’s images are so strong, so artfully well constructed, that prior knowledge of the factual elements of the story is not essential.

Daniel Henshall really steals the show as Bunting; charismatic, friendly, charming – it’s easy to see how he could pull people in and gradually get them to do his bidding. Kurzel doesn’t paint him as obviously psychotic or crazy, but as really very ordinary – just a regular guy who likes to play Dad, who is likeable, dependable and a shoulder for people who need him. His true nature is revealed slowly and incrementally; the crimes he commits gradually depicted, the horrible tortures he inflicts slowly built up to. Actually the film is not all that graphic; there is only one extended scene which is difficult to watch, but otherwise Kurzel’s camera implies rather than shows directly.

Daniel Henshall as John Bunting

The film leaves Bunting nearing the end of his murder spree, with another soon-to-be victim, in that disused bank vault in Snowtown.  Kurzel’s film doesn’t go into the details of what followed, but instead ends with some textual information on the facts of the case. This is an intense and involving film that won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it left me wanting to see it again almost immediately. Highly recommended.

Snowtown opens in Cineworld Dublin today.

Watch the trailer: